Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ferreting: There's a whole other world out there

In an effort to broaden my horizons, I've been reading James Marchington's blog quite a bit recently.   He is the editor of Sporting Shooter magazine, a popular hunting, target and shooting publication in the UK.  He's also a damn fine photographer.  I find his blog very interesting as it always contains a wildly different perspective on hunting and shooting sports from that of what we're exposed to on this side of the pond.  Getting a glimpse of his insights on hunting values as well as traditions, taken from a place that could arguably be described as the foundation of our sport, exposes a new point of view that I think we're wise to revisit from time to time. In the fog of a hunting and angling marketing blitzkrieg that relentlessly thunders away on the American sportsman, I found this video on James' blog that reveals a simpler day in time when people hunted not for sport, prestige or trophy, but merely for food.

Now, my idea of rabbit hunting is tied closely to the canyon lands of Western Colorado, a Mach 17 varmint rifle, and a high powered scope.  My goal has always been to stretch the limits of insane shooting distances in an effort to sharpen my shooting skills for the big game seasons.   The way I figure, if I can knock the head off  a rabbit at 100 yards, I should be able to confidently hit an elk at 300-400.

This short film absolutely made me laugh out loud, but at the same time reset my own thoughts on hunting, realizing that there are a number of ways to enjoy the satisfaction that comes from being outdoors and thinking my way through bagging a quarry.  Hell, I just might sell my rifles and buy a few ferrets!  This guy's got his head screwed on right.

Thanks James for opening my eyes.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Quiet Windy Day

Sometimes I wonder why I'm drawn to hunt the plains in solitude.  It doesn't happen often, but from time to time, I enjoy getting out on my own to take in a hunt with no one else around.  Such was the case on my most recent Greater Prairie Chicken hunt.

As the day started, I knew this would be a challenging outing.  The wind was blowing steady at 20-30 mph and conditions were very dry.  After taking in a beautiful sunrise over a hot cup of coffee, granola bar and some fruit, it was time to put the dog on the ground and start pushing up wind. A few minutes into my stroll, I immediately reset my expectations, tuning out visions of recent success and instead hoping that perhaps I might see a bird before the end of the day.

Luck being in my favor, I did manage to see quite a few birds though.  All totaled, I put up17 prairie chickens during the morning hunt, unfortunately with only one shot fired.  This being born out of frustration more than any legitimate shooting opportunity.  While the bird hunting gods were smiling down upon me with game, the wind was proving to be a formidable obstacle.  The birds were jumpy and flushing wild, in some cases a few hundred yards before I was able to move into a shooting position.

The heat of the day began to take hold around 11:00, so I figured it was time to head back to the truck, attend to the dog, grab some lunch, settle in for an afternoon nap, and dream up a plan for the evening walk-about.  I found a lone tree stationed as a sentry out among the sandhills which was large enough for me to park my truck under, providing shade and relief from the afternoon sun.  With temps soaring above 85 degrees, this was a welcome oasis.

My evening hunt proved to be a mirror image of the morning, and was equally frustrating.  Still windy, I was temped with plenty of birds yet given very few shooting opportunities and limited chances for my dog to enjoy his birthright.  We did manage to put the sneak on one unsuspecting bird, hidden against a sunlit amber glowing edge of a grassy bowl beneath the crest of a small hilltop.  Pepper got birdy immediately as he approached the bottom of the bowl, made a hard turn upwind, locked up for a moment, and stood staunch as we watched the bird flush some 30 yards in front of an inquisitive point.  It was a beautiful moment in time.  In desperation, I fired and manage to connect on a long poke I had no business taking.  To my amazement, my young Pepper made a wonderful 75 yard retrieve, elevating him from idiot to life long hunting companion.  I may even have to start using his name.
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Monday, October 4, 2010

Dog Boots

While reading this awesome post on Mouthful of Feathers recently, I saw this picture that got me thinking.  Are there any dog boots out there that really truly work, or is there some magic secret bird hunting Zen for getting the damn things to stay attached?  I think I've tried every manner of boot on the market and have yet to come up with a solution to keep the things from flying off into the wilderness as my dogs go racing through the fields. I'd love some comments from any of you that have found a solid solution, particular brand, of if they simply have to be super glued to their feet.

I've had more than one trainer tell me not to boot my dogs at all, and frankly I've tried simply to avoid habitat where booting is necessary.  Still, on my recent Prairie Chicken hunt, I felt the need to boot my dog just to make him more comfortable, not to mention make me feel better about the situation..  He ran into more than a few prickly pears and well ....darnit, I sure wouldn't want to step on those things without shoes on.

I've also had some real concerns about taping a dogs foot to keep boots on and how to properly do it.  The one time I did, I was careful not to wrap the foot too tight, but apparently not careful enough.  The foot swelled to a point that it looked pretty uncomfortable, even though the dog didn't display any noticeable discomfort.

If any of you have any pearls of wisdom you'd be willing to share, please let me know what experience you've had and what you find works best.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Chicken Dance

Finally, the long awaited prairie chicken season opened this past Friday in Colorado.  Shootist, and long time hunting partner Scott (often referred to as my girlfriend by my wife) and I headed out to the Sandhill Region of Eastern Colorado to figure out how to locate some of these rare birds.

Between 1973 and 1993, Colorado’s greater prairie-chickens were listed by the state as an endangered species. In 1993, the birds were delisted to threatened and in 1998 they were delisted to a special concern/non-game status. Through DOW recovery efforts, which included cooperative habitat projects with eastern Colorado landowners, greater prairie-chicken numbers have grown from a low of 600 birds in 1973 to an estimated fall population of 10,000 to 12,000 birds, which can easily sustain a limited harvest.

I've been skeptical about this hunt for a while now.  While the bird populations have continued to improve, their numbers relative to the sheer size of the country they inhabit, makes it challenging at best to figure out how to locate them.  

It's been my opinion that successful hunting always starts and ends with quality research.  It also contributes to part of the fun.  Talking to landowners, gaining permissions, visiting with biologists from the state, talking to specific area wildlife management officers, doing your home work by hitting the map books and Google Earth pretty hard, and talking with locals to gain a better understanding of specific habitat and patterns are all critical steps in formulating your plan of execution and having success on your hunt.  Social media, blogs and hunting forums have added a few new arrows to the quiver as well that cannot be overlooked.  

That being said, the more research we did on this project, and the more local people we talked to, the more I was beginning to paint a very clear picture that we were nuts, and about to waste a ton of boot leather only to end up frustrated, hot, tired and disappointed at the end of the day.  The eternal optimist, Scott kept me focused though.

We managed to locate a landowner that had a particularly large patch of land right in prairie chicken central, if there is such a thing, who was willing to grant us permission to hunt.  I've seen plenty of prairie chickens during past pheasant hunts and have learned that they are nomadic in their habits and have a wide range.  So, finding a landowner that owned a lot of land in prime habitat seemed important to having success as we wouldn't have to piece together permissions from several landowners.

A male Greater Prairie Chicken in Illinois, USA.Image via Wikipedia
Most of the early morning hours were spent driving the property and scouting out the land for the afternoon assault.  Not having been to this piece of ground before, we knew it was best to look around and get to know the terrain and property boundaries when it was light versus stumbling around in the early morning darkness.  We spent an hour or so in the afternoon parked on a high overlooking hill searching the sand hills for activity as we waited for afternoon temperatures to cool.  After talking things over, we decided to split up so as to cover more ground and gain a quicker understanding of the land in hopes of learning a few things for what we determined would be a return trip.  A plan was formulated based on a general overview of the topography and some comments we received from the property owner relative to where we might find some birds . We loaded up with as much water as we could carry, and off we went. 

Now, I knew this was going to be a hunt that didn't include a big harvest.  After all, the month and a half long season bag limit is only two birds and each must be tagged, just like on a big game hunt. Scott and I agreed that no matter what happened we would each only shoot one bird so we could both enjoy a return trip to the area later in the season. What intrigued me most about this hunt was the land.  The sand hills in the afternoon light are absolutely breathtaking and teaming with life.  As temperatures abated, what seemed like a lifeless desert quickly turned into a zoo, most impressive were the monster mule deer that began to move about as darkness approached.

A few minutes into our walk-about I heard a single shot from the next hillside a quarter mile to my right.  Having hunted with Scott many time before, I was certain a bird was harvested. Silhouetted by the setting sun, girl my girlfriend came bouncing over the top of the hill to share the experience.   I'm not sure I've ever been so proud of single bird taken.

That was the only activity we experienced for quite a while.  As darkness was approaching I figured I needed to get back to the truck while I could still see.  A little before arriving, Scott came running over from another sand hill announcing that he had located some birds about a half mile away, and that if we double timed it we might be able to get to them before the end of legal shooting light.  Needless to say, I left skid marks.  A few minutes later we arrived at the area where Scott had seen the five birds settle from an earlier flush.  We let the dogs search around for as long as we could see but weren't able to relocate the covey.  They are out there though, so it goes without saying that we'll be back.  

Greater Prairie Chickens are a very tough hunt, hard to locate, difficult to pick apart their habitat based on its generality, and scarce in their numbers.  But, as with all geographic exotic gamebirds, the rewards of success are tremendous.  The preassure is nonexistent and the destination is beautiful.  To the extent you're willing and able, this is one to put on your list.

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